Friday, January 4, 2008

The Chicago MLA Roundtable on Chris Ware

Well, it looks like it has been a while since I posted to the old blog. I've got a good excuse, though, and it starts with the letters MLA. I think I have recovered from the trip now, but I tell you, it was exhausting.

On the Thursday night of the convention, though, I gave a short paper on a round-table panel on Chris Ware. I am not exaggerating when I say this was the best panel I've seen in four MLA conventions: the most tightly conceived, the most interesting, and the most provocative (of subsequent conversation). That has very little to do with my own paper, and lots to do with the other people on the panel, plus the excellent organizing of Dave Ball.

The paper I gave was called "Chris Ware and the Grammar of Diagrams," and it was mostly kind of inspired by some things that Kevin Huizenga said in the "How to Draw Thinking" panel at SPX a couple of years ago. I spent some time in the paper looking closely at the diagrams in Jimmy Corrigan, talking about the way that Ware hides interesting (and, in one case, important) details about the interconnection of the characters' lives in the inscrutable recesses of the diagrams. But the main thing I wanted to claim—and which I only had a couple of minutes to discuss—is the way that the basic reading method of comics seems to be related to the visual grammar of the informational diagram. (I can tell you more about this if you're interested.) Looking at diagrams, as I said toward the end of the paper, can give cartoonists a lot of ideas for innovative ways of connecting information on the comics page.

In case you need reminding, here's one of Ware's diagrams (but not one that has information about the characters: this one just tells you how to read a single-panel cartoon). You can click to enlarge it.

The other four papers on the panel were all really great. Our friend Martha Kuhlman gave a quick talk about Chris Ware's relation to the "Oubapo" movement, and she very generously included us in her list of American "oubapians," based on our interest in formal constraints. Matt Godbey talked about Building Stories and the way that gentrification has been hitting the neighborhood represented in that recent Ware story. Peter Sattler gave a really provocative (I thought) piece about the way that Ware depicts memory—and not only the memory of an event, but the memory of a feeling. (I really wish I could reproduce the Peter's whole argument, because I know there are parts of it that I found really persuasive, and there were other parts I wasn't sure about. I'd like to pick it apart with him.) The fifth paper on the panel was Benj Widiss's paper about Quimby the Mouse as autobiography, focusing in particular on the way that changes to Quimby's head (decapitation, mutation, removal, etc.) are a good symbol for the self-in-formation as Ware develops toward a mature sensibility.

I wish I could present more details about the papers, because they were all really stimulating. There were some really nice moments in the post-papers discussion, too—I remember a moment when one of Matt's slides from Building Stories turned out to be useful in making a point about one of Peter's claims because of the way the image could be read as a diagram. Or something like that. Anyway, the connections between the papers were really stimulating, and I'm hoping I'll get to keep in touch with all of these comics scholars. It's the best academic panel on comics I've been a part of that didn't also include Mike.

(That was another one of my slides.)

One non-comics-related thing about my trip to Chicago: I was totally charmed by the public sculpture named "Cloud Gate," which everyone calls "The Bean." It was just a couple of blocks south of our conference hotel, and on Sunday I developed a little bit of an obsession with it, I think. Here's a cell-phone photo:

It's highly reflective stainless steel. It's thirty-three feet tall. You can walk under it with plenty of headroom, and there are tons of weird reflections-of-reflections-of-reflections in the "omphalos" on its underside. It made me giggle like a four-year-old. I had to go back again and see it at night.

Anyway, it's good to be back. I'll try to post again in less than a week, maybe when I start working on my syllabus for this spring's course on the graphic novel.

1 comment:

Ben Towle said...

The Ware thing sounds really, really interesting. It's one of many recent comics talks that I wish I was able to just jet set around and check out.

While more of a rambling rumination than a formal piece, I wrote a short entry about Ware's idiosyncratic use of perspective here: